That poetry is by turns playful and elegiac, absurd and exquisite — but more than anything else, it is immediately recognizable. If some poets remind us of the richness of American poetry by blending seamlessly into one of its many traditions, Mr. Ashbery has frequently seemed like a tradition unto himself. It is a cliché to praise a writer by saying no one has ever sounded quite like him, and yet: No one has ever sounded quite like him.
Not that they have not tried. Charles McGrath, the editor of The New York Times Book Review from 1995 to 2004, recalled that a large portion of new poetry titles during his tenure could be (and often were) tossed into a pile labeled “Ashbery impersonations.” And Mr. Ashbery remains far and away the most imitated American poet.
That widespread imitation has served mostly to underscore the distinctive qualities of the original — and those qualities are singular indeed. An Ashbery poem cycles through changes in diction, register and tone with bewildering yet expertly managed speed, happily mixing references and obscuring antecedents in the service of capturing what Mr. Ashbery called “the experience of experience.”
The effect can be puzzling, entrancing or, more frequently, a combination of the two — as if one were simultaneously being addressed by an oracle, a PTA newsletter and a restless sleep talker. The beginning of Mr. Ashbery’s 1974 poem “Grand Galop” is representative of his approach:
All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.
Stephen Koch, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described Mr. Ashbery’s work as “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.”
It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about, and Mr. Ashbery…